In Defense of the Medium

By Alex MillerAugust 18, 2018

In Defense of the Medium

Why Comics? by Hillary Chute

NEARLY A QUARTER CENTURY after Scott McCloud introduced a generation of readers to the rigors and rewards inherent to the practice of understanding comics, Hillary Chute has authored a necessary follow-up. As its title suggests, Chute’s book provides the why to McCloud’s how, panning back from the mechanics of composition and comprehension to explore how the comics medium has historically cultivated a unique space for self-expression — and, in the process, worked its way from cultural periphery to a central place in the zeitgeist. As accessible as it is engaging, Why Comics? reaffirms Chute’s place as a leading voice in comics criticism while providing casual readers with valuable insights into the contemporary world of graphic storytelling.

In a style reminiscent of Raymond Williams’s The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence, Chute’s monograph seeks to celebrate “what comics does best” by establishing a critical genealogy of the medium’s development. Chute’s history, however, is not the history that begins with Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s creation of Superman and concludes with Disney’s 2009 acquisition of Marvel and the subsequent “superhero-ification” of all things marketable. Instead, Why Comics? focuses on the evolving capacity of independent comics to represent experiences that have historically been relegated to the margins of popular culture. In pursuit of this goal, Chute deploys a thematic approach to the lives and works of a variety of now-canonical cartoonists who began their careers on the margins of both society and the industry.

Chute’s book is organized around the preoccupations that she sees as having motivated the medium’s most inventive works. With the exception of chapters on the representation of war and the experience of growing up queer, which focus respectively on Joe Sacco and Alison Bechdel, Chute frames her analysis around multiple cartoonists working in broad rubrics such as “girls,” “sex,” “cities,” and “punk.” Some of these chapters seek to establish lineages across generations, whereas others draw contrasts between the approaches individual cartoonists have taken to a shared theme. Bringing so many works into conversation with one another enables Chute to offer a compelling theory of why the comics medium is uniquely suited to represent the complexities of experience.

This is not new territory for Chute, whose Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics (2010) and Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form (2016) provided thorough readings of many of the cartoonists assembled in Why Comics? In fact, one of my initial concerns about Chute’s new volume, as someone who’s followed her criticism over the years, was the sense that she was leading me back through readings she offered in her earlier work. Ultimately, however, Why Comics? offers new insights into works and artists with whom Chute is richly familiar, as well as providing bases for discussing ones not addressed in her earlier books. Moreover, Why Comics? marks a shift in Chute’s intended audience: while Graphic Women and Disaster Drawn were published by Columbia and Harvard and marketed to academic readers, Chute’s new book capitalizes on the platform HarperCollins provides to introduce the techniques of sophisticated textual analysis to a more general audience.

It is here that Why Comics? most struck me as not only effective but also necessary. Liberated from the strictures of academic writing, Chute has the space to allow comics and their cartoonists to speak for themselves. Though a formalist attention to the medium’s conventions unites Chute’s chapters, theory often plays sidekick to Chute’s capacity to blend biography, history, and critique. Taken together, the stories included within Why Comics? do more than just realize Chute’s modest goal of “present[ing] the vibrant comics landscape.” They also provide a counternarrative to the corporate history of mainstream comics, one that speaks to the medium’s capacity to challenge how we document and understand experience.

This challenge is foregrounded in Chute’s frontispiece, which excerpts a sequence of panels from Daniel Clowes’s Ice Haven that consider the representational potential of comics. Here, amid the banalities of his morning routine, Harry Naybors, Clowes’s resident “comic book critic,” indulges in a bit of extradiegetic musing regarding what he sees as the “vital[ity]” of the medium, concluding,

Perhaps “comics,” in its embrace of both the interiority of the written word and the physicality of image, more closely replicates the true nature of human consciousness and the struggle between private self-definition and corporeal “reality.”

Though Clowes offers Naybors’s analysis with no small amount of irony, the character’s sentiment winds up exerting a kind of centripetal force throughout Chute’s readings. According to Chute, comics, because of their layered coordination of interior drama and exterior action, impose a “productive pressure” on standard acts of interpretation. While the kind of pressure a particular work applies varies along multiple axes, the effort required of the reader to process the tension this juxtaposition creates is unique to the formal DNA of the medium. We never just read comics. We enter them as we actively attempt to construct meaning by reconciling the competing streams of data they offer in each panel.

Daniel Clowes, “Harry Naybors, Comic Book Critic,” from “Ice Haven”

Why Comics? honors the work of comics — not just the work that goes into creating them, but the work that they demand of their readers. Chute suggests that this can be difficult work, but her analyses make clear that it is an activity rich in reward. While many critics, including Chute herself, have expressed similar sentiments over the decades (Marshall McLuhan said as much way back in the early 1950s), Why Comics? complicates things by extending its analysis beyond how cartoonists have employed formal techniques to what, exactly, readers do upon entering the world of a particular comic. In the simplest terms, Why Comics? is about the complex and varied relationships that exist between comics and their readers, as well as the generative and recursive dialogue that these relationships inspire between cartoonists and their fans. Thus, for Chute, grasping how comics work requires moving beyond the mechanics of form to consider how texts and their readers interact while collaboratively constructing meaning.

Why Comics? also acknowledges the degree to which the experience of reading comics is determined by the histories — aesthetic, personal, cultural — from which comics, their creators, and their readers emerge. History takes center stage in Chute’s first chapter, “Why Disaster?,” which explores the subjective worlds Art Spiegelman and Keiji Nakazawa created in order to represent their encounters with World War II and its aftermath. Starting with disaster makes sense. It has, after all, played a catalyzing role within so many classic comics. However, unlike the cold-blooded murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne or the destruction of Krypton, the disasters Spiegelman and Nakazawa recount in Maus and Barefoot Gen are not employed as a means to superheroic ends. This isn’t the war depicted in the pages of golden-age Captain America, and superheroes are not coming to save the day. These disasters define characters, but the definitions they impose are fraught with trauma and burdened by the obligation of having to bear witness to history.

In what will become a unifying refrain throughout Why Comics?, Chute suggests that cartoonists are uniquely capable of providing this kind of historical testimony because of what she calls the medium’s “diagrammatic capacity” — its ability to show and tell simultaneously, through its layering of thought and action. In a series of instructive readings, Chute illustrates how Spiegelman and Nakazawa take advantage of these formal opportunities while representing experience as a palimpsest of present and past. The past is never over, their work suggests. On the contrary, it lives on in the trauma that continues to shape our encounters with the present. Consequently, representing “the multifaceted experience of trauma” requires a medium that can depict the simultaneity of past and present. Thus Chute argues that, despite Spiegelman’s anthropomorphized animal characters, his work displays a realism that stems from his medium’s ability to represent the experience of disaster — a realism that eschews the facile solutions offered by the superheroic theatrics of mainstream comics.

This, however, does not mean that Why Comics? ignores superheroes altogether. Chute’s chapter on the dynamic duo of Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes addresses how these cartoonists subvert the mythos of superheroes by interrogating the motives and consequences of our cultural fascination with capes and cowls. This is comparatively new critical territory for Chute, but her reading reiterates what Why Comics? wants to say about the cultural significance of comics and their ability to document experience. Both Ware and Clowes admit to having grown up fascinated with the superheroic projections of Jack Kirby’s imagination. However, both have gone on to create comics that explore the repercussions of this kind of indoctrination. Consequently, superheroes and their attendant symbolism appear throughout the worlds Ware and Clowes create as devices to critique the flawed promises codified in mainstream comics. The supermen depicted in Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth and Clowes’s The Death-Ray abuse their powers and believe that their abilities place them above rebuke. They are, in that sense, very similar to powerful individuals who exert their will in the real world while victimizing the comparatively powerless. Through their subversion of the conventional logics governing superheroic tropes, Ware and Clowes create space within the medium to express the anxieties and desires of readers who, like Spiegelman and Nakazawa, lament the failure of caped crusaders to intervene in the real disasters that characterize life.

Thus, despite their reliance on the conventions of the superhero genre, Ware and Clowes depict experiences that are ultimately grounded in the shared realities confronted by their readers. In pursuit of its titular goal, Why Comics? celebrates these realities, focusing on how independent comics have provided a venue for exploring life as it is lived by characters who have been ignored by mainstream comics. In this sense, Chute sees the work that independent comics perform as recuperative, insofar as such comics are engaged in representing the experiences of lives lived on the margins.

Chute’s chapter on Harvey Pekar and the Hernandez Brothers fleshes out this insight with reference to the role that cities play within comics. Within the works of these artists, cities are far more than simply backdrops for cyclical patterns of catastrophic incident and superheroic salvation. Rather, they serve as spaces of meaningful cultural exchange. Consequently, instead of providing fantasies that encourage readers to escape their realities, the realism of these works, in Pekar’s formulation, “pushes people into their lives.” While Pekar and Los Bros Hernandez take their readers to radically different locations, their comics share a documentarian impulse that is not altogether dissimilar. Through their commitment to documenting the quotidian, they contribute to what Chute sees as a “historical record” that subverts the comics medium’s mainstream conventions and creates space for the expression of alternative experience.

Chute makes the case that this space is beneficial to cartoonists and readers alike in her chapter on the generative cross-pollination that occurred between underground comics and the punk scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s. In this moment, artists working in a variety of forms pooled their talents and subversive inclinations to challenge the hegemony of a corporate media landscape intent on presenting a homogenized narrative of American experience. The DIY aesthetic of punk was a philosophy familiar to underground cartoonists, many of whom found their first audiences via similar informal channels of exchange. (Robert Crumb famously sold the early issues of Zap out of a stroller in Haight-Ashbury.) The ethos of both scenes was, according to Chute, “democratic and experimental,” with authenticity communicated through the distance artists could establish between their work and the mainstream. Though this chapter focuses primarily on Gary Panter’s and Matt Groening’s journeys from the obscurity of their early zine days to their eventual international acclaim, its analysis of the cultural work comics perform has broader implications. By illuminating the histories that placed punk and underground comics into dialogue, Chute makes the case that comics do more than simply provide a venue for giving voice to the historically silenced. They also foster communities around such voices.

The prosocial potential of comics is explored most explicitly in what is arguably Chute’s strongest chapter, “Why Illness and Disability?,” which addresses the work of Justin Green and Allie Brosh. Though separated by at least a generation and radically distinct in terms of their aesthetics, both Green’s Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary (1972) and Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half (2009) utilize the opportunities afforded by the comics medium to translate the experience of living with disability onto the page (or, in Brosh’s case, into her blog).

Binky Brown, which was among the first autobiographical graphic narratives ever published and remains one of the medium’s most influential works, focuses on Green’s struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Green represents these struggles in hauntingly detailed panels that juxtapose physical and mental states in a way unique to the comics medium. In Chute’s analysis, panels such as one in which Green’s eponymous protagonist imagines his fingers as phalluses emanating ray beams “force an uncomfortable looking.” They do so by demanding that readers reconcile competing streams of data in an attempt to negotiate the confusions and frustrations that typify the experience of mental illness. Discomfort, that is to say, is not a means to an end — it is the goal itself.

Justin Green, “Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary”

Chute contends that Brosh’s work similarly endeavors to relate the experience of mental illness through what Chute calls the “double-trackedness” of comics’ layering of physical and emotional states. Drawn employing a deceptively simple style that initially threatens to belie the sophistication of her strip’s introspection, Brosh’s figuration of self and illness remains one of the most salient and effective attempts to document depression that has ever been published. This is all the more impressive given that it validates the experience of mental illness within a medium that has historically associated such illness with deviant behavior.

By focusing on the role comics can play in communicating experience, Chute’s chapter on illness and disability emblematizes her response to her book’s titular quandary. At a moment when IMAX translations of the latest superheroic slug-fests are clearing over half a billion dollars on their opening weekends alone, a defense of the medium’s cultural significance seems somewhat unwarranted. However, Chute’s interests lie beyond the reaches of the ever-expanding Marvel Comics Universe. The heroes of Why Comics? don’t rely on superpowers and corporate sponsorship to wage their battles against the world’s injustices. Instead, with the fierce independence that characterizes all true heroes, they place pen to paper (or stylus to touchscreen) and courageously plumb the depths of our shared experience. By providing an accessible and engaging introduction to these artists and their work, Why Comics? honors the courage involved in establishing this representational space.


Alex Miller is a lecturer on Ethnic, Gender, and Labor Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma. His scholarly interests include contemporary literature and critical masculinity studies.

LARB Contributor

Alex Miller is a lecturer on Ethnic, Gender, and Labor Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma. His scholarly interests include contemporary literature and critical masculinity studies.


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